This is a post by guest blogger Ellen Bulger.
When the lines of engagement are drawn, most everyone counts science on the side of atheism. But many theists claim art as theirs and theirs alone. Atheists, we are told, are cold, bitter, empty souls. “Look,” we are admonished, “look at all the great art that was created in the name of religion.” Endlessly we hear how artists come down on the side of god.
I call bullshit.
I hear the magnificent musical masses and songs of praise. I can’t take my eyes off the soaring cathedrals with their stained glass and altar triptychs. But you think those things are proof that creativity springs from a god? Then you are so not an artist.
Artists need to eat. Artists need to buy materials. Artists need a place to live and work. Artists need their work to be seen because it is, after all, COMMUNICATION.
Artists need to be safe from persecution. Not for nothing, if you do sculpture or painting in a totalitarian state, you seriously increase your chances for sponsorship by perfecting a style of portraiture that reflects back at the PTB like Snow White’s Stepmother’s mirror. You might even extend your life expectancy. During much of Europe’s history, you towed the line of whatever Christian sect was dominant at the given time, or you risked your life, never mind getting a big fat generous patron. The only grants available during the dark ages were from the church. It is no coincidence that the fundies want to shut down the NEA.
But having been through the art school route, I can tell you that there is damn little discussion of god. Or rather, god gets no more attention than science or politics and considerably less attention than light, form, color, composition and, oh yes, sex and death. As far as I can tell, contemporary artists explore god mostly as a concept. Artists are less interested about god than they are in man’s relationship to god, in much the same way as they are interested in man’s relationship to everything else. Doubtless there are exceptions. And if artists want to question god and religion, they aren’t necessarily vocal about it. What they do is, put those questions into their work and then display it and let the public do the interpreting. Artists might rub your nose in issues public and private, but they won’t necessarily spell it out for you. You are required to participate.
The artists I know who are atheists are quiet atheists. And there are artists who are quietly religious. But the public discussion between artists is not one of “Let us strive to express the glory of god!” as some would have you believe.
The pandering politicians who bristle at contemporary art yearn for the good old days. Yet their very reactionary reactiveness has elevated Serrano’s Piss Christ into an iconic work of historical significance. Do they realize that? Mustn’t it just, you should pardon the expression, grill their cheese?
Many conservatives would like all art to be propagandist patriotic or comforting mirrors to the collective narcissism. It’s queasy making. Really, atheists should get together and commission a spectacularly tacky 30-ft bronze of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It would be a droll and delightful project. And we should install it in the lobby of a National Museum of Atheism. I’m envisioning a modest-yet-imposing marble structure of Greek revival-style architecture. We should raise money and acquire an existing building or build one right in D.C.. Then wait and pray for Banksy to come along and tag the motherfuckin’ shit out of the exterior. EVEN IF HE IS CRITICIZING US. Wear it proudly, like the best ink EVER.
Great art often makes people uncomfortable. Like science, art is an exploration. Art is also communication. Science asks, what do we know, what is real? Sometimes art just says LOOK, and leaves the rest up to you. Art often asks, what do we think, and why do we think it? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir makes music, not history. They don’t change the way people think about music and sound and the world. They don’t challenge us.
Creative expression is not magical, even if observer and artist alike are often unaware of the processes at work. The religious think that art is a gift from god. Scientists act like they suspect artists are idiot savants.
What both sides miss is that art is problem solving. Artists, like scientists, build on the work of those who came before them. But unlike scientists, they are free to ignore the old knowledge and head off in an entirely new direction. Instead of standing on shoulders, artists might choose to tie some giant shoelaces together to catch the Titans unaware.
Art can simultaneously be freewheeling and an intellectual exercise, though often a non-verbal one. Art is banging together concept rocks in your head to make sparks, make FIRE. To really dig it, you have to let go. You can’t just be comfortable with uncertainty, you have to seek it. You have to crave it. Or so it seems to me.
These are my thoughts. I’m just one artist, a very tiny sample size of me. I’d like to hear from other artists who are atheists and see what they have to say. I’d like to feature their art here.
As atheists, we believe that man created god, not the other way around. As artists? Hell, we just get down to work and create.